Procurement: Letting The Troops Decide

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November 23, 2016: Ukraine recently increased the budget for its Special Operations Forces by fivefold. More importantly they borrowed a technique made famous by U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) to get the most out of that additional money. The American Special Forces, Rangers and Delta Force commandos have long operated with what amounted to the freedom to buy whatever they needed. The Americans found SOCOM procurement procedures so useful that in 2002 the RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative) was established for the entire army. RFI recognized that the American army did not always have the best weapons and equipment available and that the troops and low-level commanders had a better idea of what was needed than the senior generals and politicians. RFI was intended to do something about that and do it quickly. During the next nine years the army approved the purchase of 409 items immediately, which is what RFI was all about. In 2012 the army began deciding which of these RFI items to make standard equipment (about a quarter of them) and which to discard (the rest, although many were obsolete and improved replacements were being sought). The marines went through the same process and found that most of their RFI items were worth keeping. This was due to the marines having a tradition of doing more with less mainly because they have much less money to spend per person than the army.

The success of RFI was not a surprise as SOCOM had long possessed its own RFI-like powers and budget to go with it. SOCOM could buy neat new weapons, as well as equipment. SOCOM could also afford to buy expensive stuff (the first night vision gear and satellite phones). SOCOM personnel were on the Internet as well. By 2001, thousands of soldiers were speculating, via the Internet, how much more effective they could be if they had SOCOM's freedom to quickly get new stuff that allowed them to do their job better. The army went all-volunteer in the 197os and that made the army infantry much more effective and able to make the most of RFI.

The army had been asking for some RFI capabilities for decades but budget politics blocked them. That changed when American troops went into Afghanistan in October, 2001. The first ones in were several hundred SOCOM Special Forces operators and they did most of the work. Once the media got to the Special Forces operators, stories started coming out about the non-standard gear they were using. American infantrymen being sent to Afghanistan saw those stories, as did people in the Pentagon and Congress. Connections started to get made. Among other things, someone in the Pentagon realized that the army would not look too good if too many journalists interviewed too many troops who had bought civilian equipment with their own money, while the Special Forces was getting it paid for by the government. This was especially embarrassing if the new equipment from a civilian supplier was obviously superior to the stuff the government was handing out. With this kind of incentive the Rapid Fielding Initiative was quickly set up and became a big success.

Meanwhile Ukraine has a need for RFI and better equipped troops. But Ukraine also has lots of corruption problems, even now that there is a war on with Russia since 2014. But the Ukrainian Special Operations troops are keen to maintain their uniqueness and know that if their “RFI” powers are tainted by corruption they will not only lost it, but their reputation for being special. If the Ukrainians can make RFI work for them then the concept will be more acceptable in a lot of other places.

 


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